Beating the blues: A survival guide for struggling expat residents
Expatriates often move to the UAE with grand dreams of a fresh start, drawn by a hefty salary, a dry, sunny climate, the chance to meet new people and the prospect to live a more exotic, luxurious lifestyle.
But for many people there are also downsides to expat life, which often go unspoken.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, with more than 300 million people affected, an increase of more than 18 per cent since 2005. As The National reported last week, expatriates are particularly vulnerable.
Fortunately, there are groups that offer support for those who are struggling or overwhelmed.
The expat arrival
When David and Sarah Taylor and their son Nathan (then 13) moved to Abu Dhabi in August 2015, it was the first time they had been away from their hometown of Swansea in South Wales, for more than a couple of weeks.
“When we left the United Kingdom, we were excited – we couldn’t wait,” says Sarah. “My husband started work the day after we arrived, and Nathan and I were just left in the apartment, very isolated. I didn’t have my driving licence yet...my son stopped eating anything for two weeks. There were tears every day. We had expected this fairy tale, and the reality was the complete opposite.”
After two weeks, Sarah took Nathan to see a doctor and broke down, asking for help. Nathan was referred to a counsellor, and when he started school, things slowly started to improve.
“I started going to the pool and gym and meeting people,” says Sarah. “Making connections made life easier.”
Best resources to help with settling in
Change is often difficult, and for those new to the UAE, Facebook community groups – particularly neighbourhood-specific ones – can help you find your footing.
“Expats are here without their relatives for support, and it takes a while to make friends,” says Freya Jaffar, a Pakistani-Briton who runs five Facebook groups, including Abu Dhabi Q&A, which has more than 37,000 members.
“But you find that online, people form very nice support networks among themselves. Abu Dhabi Q&A has become a very familiar, comforting little place to make new acquaintances.”
Online, Jaffar says the things that differentiate people, in terms of culture and accents, are not so pronounced, making it easier to interact and connect.
“Newbies” to Abu Dhabi can post questions on the forum to help them navigate the city and its services during their first few months, and expatriates can use the group’s “anonymous posts” service to write about their problems.
Reading several such posts each day gives Jaffar and her team a unique insight into the emotional struggles expatriates face.
“Loneliness is a common theme,” says Jaffar. “That’s why, particularly in Abu Dhabi, people are online a lot. Financially, expats in the UAE are better off, but I think they’re often gaining the money at a sacrifice. I see a lot of marriage problems cropping up.”
The Abu Dhabi Woman forum, has 20,000 members, and will celebrate its 10-year anniversary next month. The online group was set up by Judith Price, the American author of the Jill Oliver series of thrillers, who now lives in Dubai. One of the most useful parts of the forum is its “Feelin’ Blue Support Group”.
“This was started when we discovered ladies posting about how hard it is, to feel isolated and alone as an expat,” says Price. “We found it can be challenging, as a portion of the community is living outside the city, in far-off communities, and unable to meet.
“The community has been successful in positively helping women when they first arrive in Abu Dhabi, before they find their way into a local group.”
Dealing with the road bumps
Even when expats are settled, it is often not the end of the challenges, given the transient nature of the population.
Lorena Rodriguez, who moved to Abu Dhabi from Spain 10 years ago, says at first it was “easy and amazing”, until her close circle of friends began disintegrating.
“They started leaving the country and, for the first time, I felt lonely,” she says, adding that it was tough to start all over again.
“Every time, it’s harder. Two years ago, my best friend here left the country – we were neighbours, and our kids were super-good friends. I cried like a baby for days.”
Rodriguez is a member of the Abu Dhabi branch of I Am a Triangle, an expatriate support network that is also in Dubai. The triangle is an analogy for how it can feel going from one culture (a circle) to another (a square), thereby forming a triangle-like shape reflecting cultural estrangement.
“Being a triangle means you have some of your original circle culture, mixed with some of your newly adopted square culture,” says Naomi Hattaway, an American who set up the group in 2013 after living in India and Singapore. “You’re no longer 100 per cent circle, but you’ll never be 100 per cent square. You’re left somewhere in the middle.”
Although many expats struggle making friends, Fay Sherwood, who helps to run I am a Triangle in the capital, says the ones you do make can be more dedicated and supportive. When her husband had a heart attack in November 2015, while she was flying back to the United States, “the expat community totally stepped in, until I was able to return”, she says.
Overcoming the initial problems expats face in a new city can give them a sense of freedom, and that the world is now their oyster.
“Being an expat makes you stronger, you feel you could face other obstacles life that throws at you,” admits Taylor.
Leaving the UAE
While arriving has its challenges, returning home can also be difficult – and is referred to as “reverse culture shock”.
“When I go back home to visit it’s like I don’t fit in any more,” says Sherwood, who worked in the US before moving to Abu Dhabi three years ago. “Everybody else has stayed the same, but I’m not the same.”
It’s a feeling Miranda Rowlands is familiar with, having spent 20 years living in Greece, Dubai, Indonesia, the UK and Singapore before returning home to Australia.
“After 20 years away, I found the country I’d left behind had evolved markedly,” she says. “Without being part of that evolution, it was more poignantly obvious.”
Rowlands runs the 289-member Facebook group Expat Wives in Australia, which helps both expats and repatriating expats.
“We’re a tiny group, but behind the scenes I support so many women who are struggling here. It’s hard for us all at times... but there are good stories too.”
Rowlands says the most difficult part of being a expatriate who returns home is that no one is interested in listening to stories about your life experiences abroad.
“It’s worse to get that sort of reaction from family and friends, who are somehow supposed to care about you,” she says.
To counteract this, Rowlands introduces herself by stating she finds it incredible that some people don’t want her to discuss the last third of her life. Thankfully, she has found returning expats do settle in back home eventually.
“It’s also important to accept that ‘homesickness’ for expat life will inevitably happen at some stage, and to different degrees,” she says.
“We are expats, we are adapters – and we are also survivors!”
Updated: April 10, 2017 04:00 AM